André Pratte, Aux pays des merveilles. Essai sur les mythes politiques québécois
A couple of months ago, Toronto Star columnist Graham Fraser wrote about an important new book on the subject of Quebec nationalism and separatism. Written by La Presse chief editorialist André Pratte, Aux pays des merveilles. Essai sur les mythes politiques québécois is a thought-provoking, detailed examination of the many myths of sovereignist/separatist rhetoric in Quebec. As someone who voted in favour of both referenda, Pratte has changed his mind about where Quebec's future lies, and has written a stinging critique of the sovereignist project. It is a testament to his writing skill that I spent a Friday evening reading his book, unable to put it down. (Of course, when one lives in rural New Brunswick, the options for evening entertainment are more limited, but that should by no means be taken to reduce the significance of my enthusiasm for his keen writing style and probing analysis).
The 1995 "Oui" slogan could perhaps be considered the starting point for his analysis. "Oui, et ça devient possible!" could be read on advertizing panels throughout the province. But what lies on the other side of that looking glass that Bouchard, Parizeau et al wanted Quebeckers to pass through? According to Pratte, a world of unfathomably rosy assumptions, wishful thinking and self-delusions. Among other aspects of the separatist project, Pratte skewers the optimistic economic forecasts of the Legault budget, the unreasonable immigration projections and the coldly rational response envisaged from the rest of Canada. In each case, he argues, the transition period would be a far more dismal state of affairs than the separatists wanted to have the people believe.
In light of the recent scandal over the teaching of history in Quebec, where Ministry of Education officials proposed a major (but overly aggressive, in my opinion) reworking of the history curriculum that would not dwell completely on Quebec's grievances against the rest of Canada - the Conquest, the 1837 rebellions, the 1982 Constitution - it is interesting to see that Pratte, like the Parti Quebecois government that initiated the curriculum review, sees weaknesses in how Quebec history has been taught. As Pratte points out, the teaching of history in Quebec has been geared to training young nationalists. Where, he asks, are the stories of successful collaboration between English- and French-Canadians? Why is so much focus placed on the Lord Durham report, and not on the Baldwin-Lafontaine collaborations that supplanted it? Where are the heroic tales of Georges-Etienne Cartier as a Father of Confederation? Why is Quebec painted as a perpetual victim, helpless to shape its destiny, when it has accomplished so much within Canadian federalism?
And indeed, it is on the nature of Canadian federalism and the position of Quebec within this system that Pratte is at his strongest. He rightly points out that rarely, if ever, do you hear mention of Quebec's about-faces on the Fulton-Favreau formula (1964) and Victoria Charter (1971) after Premiers Lesage and Bourassa had struck a deal with the other premiers and the Prime Minister. And yet Meech Lake is the great betrayal? And why is federalism such a grievous injustice to Quebec? Time and time again, Pratte demonstrates, Canadian federalism has been able to accord Quebec the powers it has sought over pensions, immigration, and numerous other sectors. The problem, he argues, is that every time Quebec has a new demand, it is presented as a "long-standing grievance" worthy of withdrawal from Confederation. Even the so-called fiscal imbalance - the rallying cry of Gilles Duceppe - is a very recent phenomena, no more than a decade old at most, and not a deep injustice to the province requiring a massive redistribution of tax powers, but a minor tweaking of taxation levels. This is not the approach of a mature partner in Confederation.
It is gratifying to have an eloquent francophone voice pointing out these myths of the sovereignist/separatist project. Pratte believes that Canadian federalism is flexible enough to meet the needs and aspirations of Quebeckers, and I agree with him. Hopefully his book will be widely read, and used by defenders of federalism in the ongoing debates over the future of the province.
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